When I bought an Android phone in October of 2013, it surprised people. I had long been pegged as an Apple fanatic. Indeed, I was a big supporter of Apple. All of my computers were Macs, I owned an iPad 2 and an Apple TV. I had been using iPhones nonstop for five years.
If you asked me for computer shopping advice, I would steer you toward a Mac. If you asked me what kind of tablet to buy, I would tell you to get an iPad. If you asked me what smartphone to get, the answer would be iPhone.
So, it’s understandable why they were shocked when I bought a Nexus 5. Why did I do it? For one thing, I felt left out. I’m tirelessly interested in technology. Having never owned an Android phone, I felt like my understanding of the subject was severely lacking.
Another reason I wanted an Android phone was that I wanted a bigger screen. The latest iPhone at the time was the 5S, which featured a slender 4″ display. The screen on the Nexus 5 was nearly a full inch larger.
Simply put, I was curious about Android, and the only way to fully quell my curiosity was to purchase a phone and use it for a while. So that’s what I did.
An added perk was the price. The Nexus 5 was nearly half the price of the iPhone I wanted at the time. In the great argument of Android vs. iPhone, price is the perhaps the most persuasive factor in the case for choosing Android.
My impressions of Android…
So, what do I think of Android? Before I get into it, I would like to make a few disclaimers. When you read my well-informed thoughts, it’s going to sound like I hate Google. It’s important that you understand that I do not. I like Google. That’s one of the reasons I wanted a Nexus 5.
Gmail is my platform of choice, and has remained so for the past nine years. I love YouTube. Google Analytics plays an important role in my professional life, and I’m glad it exists. Google Photos is the best photo hosting service yet, by a landslide. I think their new CEO, Sundar Pichai, is an intelligent and respectable guy. And, I will literally jump for joy and do cartwheels the day Google Fiber gets installed in my home.
In many meaningful ways, I am a big fan of Google.
Android, however, is not for me. It’s been the source of a lot of stress and anger over the past 24 months. The cameras on Android phones, for the most part, are terrible (excluding only the latest Galaxy 6S and LG G4, perhaps). I have a beautiful three year-old daughter and a cute infant son, and my Android phone has failed to properly photograph and video them literally hundreds of times.
I saved a few bucks by choosing an Android phone. It has cost me dearly.
Stock Android is lousy…
If you read tech news as much as I do, you likely have heard praise of stock Android. It’s an old story: Touch Wiz on a Samsung phone is terrible, and the pure, unadulterated version of Android on a Google Nexus phone is heavenly.
In reality, this falls apart pretty quickly.
What’s the weakest part of Gmail? That’s right: Contacts. Why is the Contacts section of Gmail so bad? Kevin Fox, a Senior Design Lead at Google, explained that contacts were low on their priority list — and it has remained so since launch. This is classic Google: Ship a beta before it’s ready and move on to other projects without ever fixing it.
Google Glass needed to be invented, and cars needed to drive themselves, so the Contacts section in Gmail has just remained shitty.
This becomes more problematic, however, when the guts of Gmail takes on the role of being the central nervous system of a mobile phone. Contacts are pretty important on a phone. If they’re kind of shitty, the user experience is going to be shitty, too.
I don’t doubt that carriers and phone manufacturers do terrible things when they skin versions of Android and put them on the phones they sell. The bloatware problem is real, and I can totally see how its an annoyance.
But to claim that stock Android is a good experience is false.
When I describe the problems I have had with people who use skinned Android devices, they never have the same issues. As bad as a skinned Samsung device may be in the eyes of a jaded tech journalist, Samsung has at least fixed some major problems with the stock OS.
When I first started using my Nexus 5, it had Android 4.4.4 KitKat. At this point in time, stock Android provided you with something it called “Contacts” in the phone app, and another separate app called People. I didn’t discover the People app until nine months into using the phone. Apparently, you were supposed to use the People app as the Contacts app, and the Contacts section of the phone, was, uhh… just a thing that was there.
I still haven’t wrapped my head around this, as you can see.
I was utterly confused. All I knew was that I couldn’t edit the Contacts section of the phone, and the People app was equally confusing. If someone gave me their address, I would write it in a Google Keep note, because I couldn’t add it to the Contacts section of the phone. I never connected the dots as to how this was all supposed to work. Frankly, I was shocked that it was such a disastrous mess.
My troubles were exactly the kind of thing that annoys heavy-duty Android users. To them, it all made perfect sense. They couldn’t picture it working any other way.
Google, apparently, could picture things working differently. When they introduced the next version of Android, Lollypop, the People app had been eliminated. Google decided that Contacts and People should be united into one app, called… Contacts.
The new version of Contacts is very similar to Apple’s iOS contacts. The major distinction between the two is that Android spends 90% of its energy trying to send you to Google+.
Oh man, the Hangouts app…
Do one thing, and do it well. This credo is not embraced by the Hangouts app. Hangouts is, as far as I can tell, the combination of SMS text and other formats of text messaging. It also has some affiliation with email (I often bump myself out into the Gmail app, somehow). It also does some kind of non-phone phone dialing. And it does video calls. It also will send you to Google+, if you’re not careful.
It’s like Skype and WhatsApp and a USB phone all smashed into one.
It’s the worst, most confusing piece of garbage in the universe.
If you’re a text-addicted person who is super comfortable with Android, and you spend half the day in group texts with your friends, I’m sure that the Hangouts app is great. If you’re any other kind of person, it’s hell.
Dial 1 for voicemail…
Did you know that visual voicemail isn’t included with every smartphone? I didn’t! Wow, was I surprised that I couldn’t use visual voicemail when I got my Nexus 5. T-Mobile simply didn’t support it.
For several months, I needed to dial 1 to listen to and manage my voicemails. Talk about hell…
A few months later, I found an app called YouMail that I used for a while. It looked awful. The overall vibe of the app was odd. It felt like it was designed for preteens in Asia. It had some interesting, prank-like aspects to it. For example, you could set up YouMail to go to the “busy” signal for certain phone numbers. For me, though, it was a sad compromise.
A year and change into my Android experience, I joined a family plan on AT&T. Ahh! Real visual voicemail at last! Well, no. It turns out that AT&T didn’t support it, either. Now, if I wasn’t on a family plan, I could get my own AT&T U-Verse plan, and then (and only then) AT&T would give me visual voicemail. Another dead end. My phone bill had dropped from $80 a month to $15. I wasn’t about to change anything.
A few months ago I signed up for something called Google Voice. I don’t really understand what it is. It required me to add my phone number to Google’s system. Now, when I get a voicemail, Google sends me a transcript of the voicemail through Hangouts and Gmail. It’s weird, but much better than dialing 1 and listening.
Tips on buying an Android phone…
If you’re going to try out Android, I suggest avoiding Nexus phones. Google recently announced the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P. The 5X is the latest version of my old phone. It’s just marginally better, though. An awful aspect of the Nexus 5 is its fragility. I dropped mine three times, and the screen cracked each time. LG designed my phone, and they also designed the new 5X. I watched the announcement of that phone in its entirety, and they never once mentioned that they had improved its strength. Buyer be warned: This phone has a death wish.
That leaves us with the Nexus 6P. This is a giant phone. It’s a proud, big-screened Android device. It’s a phablet. It’s as big as the iPhone 6S Plus. If you want a giant phone to hold up to your face and wedge into your pocket, and you want to deal with all of the crap a Nexus phone forces you to deal with, the 6P is for you.
Again, the best reason to get an Android phone is to save money. This is a very real reason, and something everyone should consider. As much as I disliked being an Android user, part of my brain will continue to consider getting another one some day — just to save a buck.
There are some really good inexpensive Android phones on the market right now. The latest generation of the Motorola Moto G is a great option. The Moto X Pure is also a good way to go. If you can put up with some crap, these phones will save you some cash.
Back into the walled garden…
I bought a new 128GB iPhone 6S today. It wasn’t an intentional tribute, but today just happens to be the four year anniversary of Steve Jobs’ death.
I’m curious to find out what I will like and dislike in iOS 9. As painful as Android has been, I’m dying to find out what I’ll miss about it.
Right off the bat, I’m sure I’ll miss the speed of Google’s voice-activated search. I greatly prefer it to Siri.
NOTE – I want to make it clear that I’m not praising Google Now. Google Now is annoying. It’s one of those things, much like Google+, that they try to force down your throat.
I know the iPhone has voice-activated search in the Google app, but it’s a slower experience. I love being able to turn on my phone and speak commands. This is why I still kind of want a Moto X. With that phone, you don’t even have to touch it. It’s always listening, and you just say “Okay Google…”
Another thing I will greatly miss is the Google Opinion Rewards app. This is a free app that sends you surveys once in a while. The surveys are quick, and they pay you in Google Play credits. It’s awesome. I bought the first two seasons of Silicon Valley with it (highly recommended, BTW), and a couple of movies.
The big questions are… will I miss the Gmail app? Will I miss the app drawer and launchers? Will I miss the notifications? Man, I was really disappointed by the notifications in Android. All of the tech journalists I read always talk about how Android’s notifications are so much better. And… I just didn’t see it. The Nexus 5 even has white and green lights that sometimes illuminate, but I still have no idea what they mean. Also, the phone will often make a notification alert sound, I will pick it up and not see anything new. It’s crap.
One thing I will certainly not miss is the camera. What a piece of junk. In fact, if you’re in the market for an Android phone, skip the Motorola stuff and just get the LG G4. That camera is at least decent. The phone on the other hand…
I always feel like a jerk when I write critical reviews. I’m sure there are plenty of great people on the other side of these phones, apps, and features. I know this stuff isn’t easy. I didn’t hate everything about this phone. Another example: I prefer the Google Play Store over the Apple App Store.
The big problem with Android phones, and Google in general, is focus. They put out a phone like the Nexus 5, and shortly afterward it felt like they forgot about it. After Lollypop was officially released, it actually took a few weeks for Google to push it out to the Nexus 5. I was shocked that it took so long, and stunned at how dreadfully buggy it was when it arrived. Google knew damn well that Lollypop was running like crap on the Nexus 5, and they shipped it anyway.
In contrast, Apple is laser focused on your user experience. They take every detail into deep, thoughtful consideration. In this regard, Apple and Google are opposites.
I think Sundar Pichai is honestly focusing Google’s energies on the less fortunate. He sincerely wants the next billion people who get online for the first time to do so with a powerful Android device in their hand. It’s a noble, worthwhile mission, and a market where they will not compete with Apple. When those billion people get online and eventually make better lives for themselves, some of them will one day get to upgrade to Apple products. Luckily for me, I got to do it today.
Apple iPhone 6S - Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Germany
LG G4 - Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Germany
Nexus 5 - Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Germany
iPhone 6S Plus - Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Germany